L.A. River revitalization blueprint inches forward

Plan for L.A. River OKd
The City Council approves a costly effort to remake the waterway. Much work remains.

By Steve Hymon, Times Staff Writer
May 10, 2007 Los Angeles Times

Embracing an ambitious and expensive vision, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday approved a long-awaited blueprint for revitalizing the much-maligned Los Angeles River.

The plan — which itself cost $3 million — calls for spending as much as $2 billion over the next half a century on more than 200 projects along the 31 miles of riverbed within city limits.

It took five years to frame the details, but the roots of the proposed river restoration go back to a fledgling group of environmentalists who in the late 1980s began insisting that the river was more than just a concrete-lined flood-control channel.

“This is a great step,” said Lewis MacAdams, founder of the activist group Friends of the Los Angeles River. “One of our first slogans was when the steelhead trout returns to the Los Angeles River, then our work is done, and to see an acknowledgment of steelhead in the plan — well, I like that.”

Echoing that thought was an ebullient Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents parts of northeast Los Angeles and who heads the council’s river committee.

“This is now a real mandate that declares the river is a real river, and we’re going to give it life and support the way it supported us when Los Angeles was first started,” Reyes said.

Among the proposed projects are dozens of parks, pedestrian walkways and bridges. The plan also calls for some river-adjacent areas to be rezoned to allow for more housing near the stream.

At its most extreme and perhaps far-fetched, the plan also proposes knocking down one of the concrete walls that contain the river to expand the channel and make it look more natural. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying those issues.

“It’s incredibly visionary, and I think they’ve set the bar high,” said Nancy Steele, executive director of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. “The key is going to be implementation.”

Steele noted that the city and region have a rich history of putting together plans for rivers and then never following through. She noted that the river plan doesn’t include upstream tributaries.

Hitting on that point, Councilman Richard Alarcon voted for the plan, but threatened to withhold support unless studies were conducted to include parks in his northeast San Fernando Valley district. “In the Valley” the river “goes through all the rich communities,” Alarcon said.

The council also committed to begin creating a three-tiered management structure to oversee implementation of the river plan.

A joint-powers authority between the city and county would manage projects within the river channel, a nonprofit appointed by elected officials would manage and construct parks along the banks, and a philanthropic organization would help raise private funds.

Other thorny issues remain, among them finding money for projects — state and federal help will be required — and improving water quality.

The city is in the early stages of a federally ordered cleanup of several pollutants in the waterway, including trash and bacteria.

Those details were touched on during Wednesday’s hourlong council discussion, but much of the talk also was of members’ fanciful ambitions for the river.

Council President Eric Garcetti — who has also been a chief proponent of the river — said he could imagine the day that rubber dams are installed in the river to create lakes large enough to hold rowing events downtown in a future Summer Olympics.

He too said the plan would continue to evolve. “The doing has already begun,” Garcetti said, “and the thinking continues.”

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